The ACC is showing no favoritism toward Duke to start conference play.
The Blue Devils open up Saturday at Notre Dame (4 p.m. ET, CBS), one of three new members to the league, and a program desperate to show it belongs in the ACC.
Students are gone on break, but the game is a sellout and Irish head coach Mike Brey expects the crowd to be even crazier than the norm for a big-time game in South Bend, Ind.
"What a way to start the ACC," Brey said on Thursday's ESPNU college basketball podcast. "It will be great, really loud. People who don't normally get tickets will fill that lower bowl seats. They're wacky and it's a good atmosphere when they're here. We don't beat Canisius without them."
Brey said he has had to remind fans and the players that there are 17 more ACC games after the Duke game. He likened the lead-up to the opener to the perception of the Notre Dame-USC football game as the game to circle during the regular season.
"But to have Duke coming in really warms up our fans [to the ACC]," said Brey.
The Irish are starting anew after Jerian Grant, the team's leading scorer, became academically ineligible on Dec. 23 after a heartbreaking late-possession loss to Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. The Irish had to reinvent themselves against the Golden Griffins, notably Grant's backcourt mate, Eric Atkins. Atkins scored 10 points and took six shots, including one 3-pointer, against Ohio State. He scored 30 against Canisius, taking 14 shots and eight 3s. He'll have to have a similar game dodging Quinn Cook to beat Duke Saturday.
"We were searching throughout the game," Brey said of trying to find lineups against Canisius. "We had lineups we never would have imagined back in August.
"We're almost like in a new season.”
The Irish won't have time to figure out whom to play with Duke looming. But it is no secret Atkins has to score, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem -- two freshmen who are suddenly getting significant time -- will have to defend, and the Irish will have to exploit Duke's deficiencies inside by having Garrick Sherman, Tom Knight and Zach Auguste be effective inside.
"We're going to have to change defenses and be aware of the arc, take away their shooters and use our big guys," Brey said. "We have the front-line guys with Sherman and Auguste trending up and Tom Knight has delivered for us. We've got to throw the ball in the post and use our big guys. We've got to change the tempo. Since we lost Grant, we've got nothing to lose the rest of the way."
And it starts by playing with house money against one of the two ACC title contenders -- especially at home. Notre Dame doesn't have to return the game to Duke in the unbalanced ACC schedule this season. Beat Duke and suddenly Notre Dame's profile changes since the selection committee will judge the Irish more by their post-Grant games than by how they played before the suspension. That doesn't mean the Irish don't get points for knocking off Indiana in Indianapolis or shouldn't be penalized for losing to Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana State. Still, this is the Irish team to evaluate.
And to beat Duke the Irish will have to deal with Jabari Parker, arguably one of the top three players in the country.
"He has the poise and demeanor of a 22-year-old senior," Brey said. "You have to be aware of him. He'll be tough to deal with one-on-one. We'll have to play zone as well."
Notre Dame doesn't have the history of playing Duke or any of the ACC schools, save the fellow former Big East members Pitt and Syracuse. But the older ACC schools don't have the knowledge of playing at Notre Dame or going against the Irish.
Duke has had one bad half since losing late to Arizona at the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 29 at MSG. That was against UCLA on Dec. 19 at the Garden, and a tie game with the Bruins turned into a 17-point Blue Devils rout.
This has been a difficult week for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose 71-year old brother, William, a former Chicago firefighter captain, passed away on Dec. 26. Coach K said Thursday that William "was my hero." Coach K has been in Chicago with his family this week and will join the team for the game Saturday. He'll rejoin the Blue Devils in time for what should be one of their tougher road assignments this season in their first true road game in 2013-14.
But this game is not about Duke. The Blue Devils will be fine, regardless of the result of this road game. Nope, this is all about the Irish -- about who they are now, and what they may become this season.